Things I Learned from Running on the Treadmill at the Gym While Watching Cable Television by Jeanette Tran

The first thing I learn from running on the treadmill at the gym while watching cable television is that you should not be at the gym watching cable television on a Friday night. There is no wait for a treadmill, but there is also nothing entertaining on, even if your idea of entertaining is watching Jon Taffer scold small business owners on AMC’s Bar Rescue, or Ree Drummond prepare Chicken Enchilasagna for her husband, Ladd, on Food Network’s The Pioneer Woman. From the hours of 6–9 p.m., your best option is likely HGTV’s My Lottery Dream Home, which, despite the effervescent David Bromstad, is a depressing show. Most people use their modest jackpot winnings to buy $200,000 townhomes. You can hardly blame them. I’ve never had a master suite for myself or an extra bedroom for when my mom visits, either.

I live in New York City, which means I am not supposed to need things like suitable guest lodgings, treadmills, or cable television. Instead of watching cable television at the gym, I could be watching sandy-haired hipsters drink pony beers in Williamsburg as I ponder how to bum overpriced cigarettes off them. I could be watching an amateur performance artist pull a ringing flip phone out of her vagina in Bushwick while I avoid eye contact with one of my students, who happens to be there. I could be watching the Manhattan skyline recede from the F train as I fall asleep on my little sister’s shoulder after an unsuccessful attempt to visit Goldbar in Chinatown.

But what if I am a self-described “married single woman” in New York City because my boyfriend of six years, who is also pursuing his PhD in English, keeps promising that we will get married as soon as he figures out “how to be happy”? What if, on the eve of his thirtieth birthday, he proposes instead that we try out long-distance for the next three years while he pauses his PhD to get his MFA in the swamps of Florida? What if, instead of searching for adjunct positions near him, I am working full-time as an academic adviser during the day and writing my dissertation at night, willing myself to believe that a robust CV and a healthy savings account will somehow help to bridge the space that we have deliberately placed between ourselves? 

What if, right now, instead of calling me, my boyfriend is out with his classmates in a courtyard reading the lousy villanelles they just penned for workshop? What if they are playing a twenty-first century version of The Gong Show where they bang on a barbecue grill lid when the turgid verses can no longer be endured? What if, just one week later, he is narrowly avoiding cheating on me with a cute fiction writer who has no idea I exist because he failed to mention me to her, or to anyone else in the program? 

I start running at the gym five days a week and determine that if A&E’s Storage Wars is not on, then I’d rather spend thirty minutes on the treadmill with American Pickers than with Pawn Stars. I learn from the cutthroat world of antique-flipping that one man’s trash is another man’s treasure, but only if you can find a willing buyer.

After one year of long-distance, my boyfriend still hasn’t figured out how to be happy. I decide I’ll try being a bona fide single woman in New York City. At Five Points in NOHO, a cute red-headed bartender tops off my happy hour margarita without my asking, and my white female co-workers all agree that I am doing the right thing by leaving my boyfriend’s sorry ass behind. A few weeks later, he shows up in my South Slope apartment, on a Friday night, and proposes with a ring bought from Etsy. “I don’t blame you for your anger and rage and uncertainty,” he declares, “but things really can be great for us still. I want to give you this ring to symbolize something greater.” I cry tears of relief because he has inexplicably found the cure to whatever has been ailing us for the past seven years. The one-carat platinum ring is financed by his parents and is far too big, but we get it resized in the Diamond District for $100 cash and share a tomahawk steak afterwards at St. Anselm. In less than a year, we get married in my hometown, San Jose. Two days later, we fly back to our respective apartments, 1063 miles apart.

My husband leaves his MFA program a year early for a tenure-track job in Iowa at his undergraduate alma mater, a dream for most academics but a renewed death sentence for him. Iowa’s fields of opportunity can’t help but feel barren when there are so few used bookstores, public transportation possibilities, or people of color. “Two Vietnamese American scholars would be a windfall for any midwestern liberal arts college,” my adviser exclaims, but I have no luck finding a position, so we remain married but apart for another two years. 

When I hit the “submit” button on my dissertation, I celebrate by riding the bus to the McDonald’s in Atlantic Terminal and order a double cheeseburger and large fries, the same thing I used to get in grad school at the McDonald’s off State Street, just blocks from the English department. The next day I go back to the gym to run on the treadmill and watch my new favorite show, Food Network’s Chopped, where I learn to sear my steaks briefly on the stove before finishing them in the oven. 

I finally find a teaching job just fifty-five miles from my husband, the vacancy appearing when the previous visiting assistant professor gets a tenure-track job in another state. I consider the wisdom of leaving my secure advising gig in New York for a financially precarious three-year contract in Iowa. The dean says, “The cost of living is much cheaper here,” and “No one will know you’re not tenure track if you don’t tell them.” My husband says, “It’s not too late to change your mind.” 

I watch one last bride say yes to the dress, cancel my gym membership, and move to Iowa. My new university provides free access to the student gym, which I find irresistible, even if going there means seeing my students in spandex and no longer being able to run while watching cable television. In the cardio room, there is just one wall-mounted television set permanently on ABC, but I don’t complain. I am saving $65.00 a month in membership fees and am spending every night with my husband. 

After six months of cohabitation, we stall out like the 2001 Chevy Cavalier my brother-in-law leaves for me, during his move from Illinois to California, in the parking lot of Des Moines’s Hampton Inn. Because Iowa is a lonely, foreign place, I tell my husband, “I need you to mean more to me than you ever have,” and this, even more than my desire to start a family, really scares him. When the greater things he once promised—us, together, every day, living and working and loving—fail to materialize, he announces his plans to move to a studio apartment in Greenwich Village without me. It turns out New York City is what makes my husband happy, and now that I’m not there, I don’t mean as much to him. He trades his 2008 Pontiac Vibe, three-bedroom apartment, and marriage for extraordinary access to experiences.

As a soon-to-be unmarried single woman in Des Moines, I learn from a kinesiologist colleague that watching television while I run is actually bad for me, but I don’t care because I suddenly find running on the treadmill while not watching cable television intolerable. I don’t care that I can accidentally strain my neck, depending on where the screen is positioned; that I don’t burn as many calories or build as much muscle if I’m changing the channels instead of my speed and incline levels; that I don’t get the stress relieving benefits exercise offers because I am engaging my mind and emotions in turbulent content. Watching cable television while running on the treadmill distracts me from the task at hand. But I am at a loss for my husband once again, and I reach for the things I know.

I join the YMCA as a post-separation, pre-divorce gift to myself and discover all that I have been missing, thirty minutes at a time. When I hit “start” on the treadmill, everything feels different, and not just because I’m in a different gym in a different city. I’m still running in place, but I’m no longer waiting for my husband, who I now know is never coming back. I am 34, live alone in a three-bedroom apartment, and my only emergency contact is my neighbor from Wisconsin, whose favorite pastime is complaining about how much she hates Iowa. As I gradually pick up speed, I consider my options. After teaching all day, I can spend my evenings searching for jobs and trying to write myself out of my current one. Or I can keep running in this place and enjoying the cable television while I figure out how to deal with all this loss.

One year later, we file for a no-fault divorce. Before a judge can be assigned to our case, the state of Iowa requires me to check a box that says, “The marriage is broken and cannot be saved.” My poet-husband warns me over email, “The language of the forms is pretty stark and severe but, then again, nothing compared to what I’ve already put you through,” and I am annoyed. The yoga I’ve added to my gym repertoire teaches me to “bend so you don’t break,” but I’m still watching enough cable television to learn that “catastrophic failure” is far more common than one might think. 

My new favorite show is the History Channel’s Forged in Fire, an edged-weapon making competition that effectively models itself after Chopped. Like contestant Rob Weimann’s Sword of Perseus (season 7, episode 1) my marriage broke because my relationship lacked “structural integrity.” Everything looked fine from the outside, but when subjected to brutal testing, its frailties were revealed. It turns out the metal is quite brittle. Numerous “delams,” places where the material has fractured into layers, exist. The guard, which ought to protect the user from self-harm, is now loose. The epoxied scales peel apart, and we lose our grip because there is nothing left to hold onto. A mechanical connection—pins and glue, or even some Loveless fasteners—would’ve been a safer bet, but nothing is foolproof. The thing we have forged together over the last decade develops a terrible warp, snaps in half, shatters into pieces. The relationship can no longer continue to be tested and I am kindly asked to please step off the floor.

Jeanette Tran resides in Iowa. She is currently writing her divorce memoir, How to Murder Your Vietnamese Husband, a personal history of Vietnamese marriage. She has published essays in MAKE Literary Magazine, The Smart Set, and Entropy Magazine.